Isaiah 49:1-6; Acts 13:22-26; Luke 1:57-66.80
The liturgy applies to John the Baptist the words God spoke to Jeremiah: Before I formed you in the womb I knew you: before you came to birth I consecrated you; I have appointed you as prophet to the nations (Vigil Mass).
These words, of course, apply to each one of us. God has known us, too, from the very beginning, indeed, from all eternity. But John is different in that he was called to a greatness and to an historical and spiritual significance to which most of us are not called: I tell you solemnly, of all the children born of women, a greater than John the Baptist has never been seen…(Mtt 11:11).
The gospel today is a completion of the gospel read at the vigil Mass for the Solemnity. In both we see God at work; hard at work. To the childless priest Zechariah God sends an angel to announce the birth of a son. I would hazard a guess that the angel’s name is Gabriel because the words of the message delivered to John are extraordinarily similar to that delivered to the Virgin Mary: Zechariah … do not be afraid … your wife Elizabeth is to bear you a son … you must name him John … many will rejoice … he will be great … he will be filled with the Holy Spirit …
John is the work of God, the masterpiece of God; he is the ultimate disciple of the Master, so much so that he was often mistaken for the Christ. Much of John’s life, like the childhood of Jesus, was lived in a mysterious silence known only to God.
As the ultimate disciple John was the ultimate witness, or if you prefer the language of today, the ultimate evangeliser. That’s what we should be – disciples and witnesses and evangelisers, but in order to make it clear exactly what that means God raised up John among the people as a towering example of radical discipleship.
The elements of this discipleship are clear and worth underlining.
Firstly we can appreciate John’s asceticism. John divested himself of every useless, empty thing life has to offer so as to clear the path between himself and God. From his diet to his clothing John demonstrated that he would take no comfort in anything the world had to offer. God was his goal and all his desire.
John’s longing for God was so insistent that he chose to surround himself with the silence in which God speaks. His life in the desert was one of unremitting silence – the language of God. John wanted to ‘learn’ God; he wanted to be like God.
John listened to God because he wanted to know his will and he wanted to know his will because he wanted to do his will. John wanted his every footstep to fall on the path of God’s will because he knew that a disciple who puts his own will before that of his master is no disciple at all and not worthy of the name.
John was a deeply humble man. Of Jesus he said (Jn 3:30): He must grow greater, I must grow smaller. What a stunning thing to say! How these words put to shame disciples who place themselves and their opinions, and their so-called ‘rights’, on an equal footing with the word of the Lord!
John was a man of outstanding courage. He spoke God’s truth to those who made it plain they didn’t want to hear that truth. They opposed him with threats but he continued to preach. Finally, because of Herodias, Herod’s brother Philip’s wife, John was arrested: For John had told him, 'It is against the Law for you to have her' (Mtt 14:3). What a man!
It’s a strange phenomenon this anger people feel, and show, when someone says something they don’t want to hear. This is precisely why God sends us prophets – to say the very thing, the exact thing, the one thing we most don’t want to hear. No wonder the prophets invariably got themselves in trouble!
As a priest I know exactly what those things are which make people most upset and angry; what it is that people most don’t want to hear from me. I could make a list of them but let me mention only one – the mortal sin we commit if we deliberately fail in the obligation to attend Sunday Mass, as well as the further mortal sin we commit if we receive Holy Communion without first confessing our sin to the priest in Confession.
Two recent popes have pointed out that priests must make it their duty to point out this teaching, even at weddings and funerals and other large gatherings where there are likely to be people who don’t know this teaching.
After a recent funeral a parishioner reported to me about a lady who very angrily blurted out after a funeral I conducted, ‘That priest! That priest! He’s telling me that I’m not worthy to go to Communion just because I don’t go to church on Sundays.’
Well, at least she heard me right! That’s the teaching of the Church and that’s what I told the congregation before distributing communion. And what’s more, that’s what I’ll be continuing to tell the congregation at every funeral I conduct.
John the Baptist was a witness to Christ by the life he lived, by the words he said , and by the death he died. The word witness in Greek means martyr. John’s death was his final witness to his Master.
Jesus had foretold that what they did to him they would do to his followers and yet, strangely, this has not deterred people from becoming disciples. Let us too not be afraid. Let us speak the truths and teachings of the Church boldly – to our children, to those who ask, and to one another.